Jim Beatty

Jim Beatty: On "Birdwatching at Fan Lake"

Among the long, multi-faceted tradition of "nature" poems, one of the most striking examples of a productive, decidedly anti-idealizing reflection on the social function of the natural world is Anita Endrezze’s "Birdwatching at Fan Lake." Rather than a disingenuous myth of Romantic transcendental connection between the autonomous subject and her dematerialized sublime landscape, Endrezze highlights how our interactions with our surroundings are mediated through social, cultural, and discursive practices. Rather than a mystical "communing" with nature seen as the special "skill" of the Indian in dominant Anglo mis-representations, "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" enacts a subjective, communal translation of experience into an evocative, compressed reflection of how we produce the natural world while at the same time being produced by it. Endrezze rehearses the ultimate act of creation–she speaks, and nature is, while at the same time nature speaks her, and she is.

On MAPS, Leslie Ullman attempts to describe this dual motion when she asserts that Endrezze employs "metaphors interweaving the natural world with the landscape of human emotion." This presupposes, however, that "the natural world" and "the landscape of human emotion" could exist as separate entities, a possibility for which "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" does not seem to allow. Ullman’s perspective seems even less productive when she speaks of a "primal sensibility" in Endrezze’s poetry. Despite Ullman’s seemingly genuine intentions, the word "primal" evokes the history of dominant Anglo distortions of the indigenous cultures of the Americas, reinscribing the myth of non-coevality upon which that history is predicated in an attempt to claim Endrezze as an authentic "Indian" voice. I think that Cary Nelson is far closer to the mark in his introduction to Endrezze in the Anthology when he says that "she has been unusually successful at finding linguistic equivalents of Native American views of nature." Rather than some pre-historic (or ahistoric) melding of the natural world with human subjectivity, Endrezze remarkably demonstrates how the two can be inter-connected and mutually constitutive.

"Birdwatching at Fan Lake" enacts a complex, contemporary vision of this inter-connectedness. Far from a "primal" Indian vision, the poem bears out Endrezze’s own caution on MAPS about imposing a vision of "Indianness" on her work: "Although I'm Yaqui I don't speak for all Yaquis. I speak for me and my experiences as a woman, a half-Yaqui, and a wife and mother." The poem demonstrates a dual individual and collective sensibility much in the same manner that this warning does. Endrezze opens with a collective vision by placing her poetic vision in the dynamic interactions of the speaker and her companion as they work together to produce the natural world around them. One source that produces their shared vision is the birdwatching guide that is the "genesis of egg and feather," in the process of "begetting / the moist nest of the osprey." The poem recognizes from the start how our perceptions of nature are in part discursively produced. The speaker goes on to demonstrate, however, that this discursive production is not exclusively textual, for she actively deploys her poetic voice to create remarkable images such as "the birds fly / into the white corridor of the sky" and the equally evocative reflection wondering "does the ruffed grouse’s drumming / enter into the memories of trees?" Rather than a Romantic vision of the natural world as a separate, empirical "reality" waiting for the proper "primal" vision to appreciate it in a more appropriate manner, "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" self-consciously highlights and enacts the discursive production of what we see in nature.

The speaker explicitly forecloses, however, a reading of these images as an authentic view of nature coming out of an ahistorical "Indian" past. Rather than a lone, privileged subjective vision, these images are dynamically produced in the speaker’s interactions with her companion. Their collective project–firmly rooted in the present with material details such as the "salt crackers"–is the grounds upon which the possibility of her striking representation of nature is predicated, for they "travel" to the space of this vision together. The necessity of the collective nature of this endeavor is highlighted by the disruption her companion causes in trying to take control of the journey, symbolized by his "hand on the oar." (The phallic imagery here is the thin basis upon which I’m choosing to gender the speaker’s companion masculine). His attempt to take control causes the speaker to think of separation, which would mean the end of their instructive visions of the natural world. It is at this pivotal point that the simultaneous production of their collective subjectivity by nature becomes apparent. The speaker’s "Love" makes amends for his transgression in trying to take control by giving voice to nature’s production of their subjectivity. He achieves this by redirecting the poetic gaze to a frame containing nature, symbolized in the birds, dynamic history, embodied in the "kingfisher[‘s] / . . . eggs [which] are laid on fish bones," and human culture, the "orange-vested children" sharing the scene with the birds. While the speaker’s lover threatens their complex, interwoven relationship with nature by trying to assert his control of the other two subjects (i.e. the speaker and nature), his discursive reintegration of their collective existence prevents an irreparable rift.

He solidifies this inter-connectedness in identifying her "hand" as a "wing," which initiates a lasting re-birth both in their human relationship and in their collective relationship with nature. The speaker evokes a sense of lasting continuity by affirming that the "herons / . . . are pewter" who "wear / medallions of patience." The poem closes with the vitality of their heart newly infused with life, for the "currents between" them are "full of hearts that beat quick / and strong." "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" is a remarkably complex account of how human subjects can inter-act with nature in a unified manner, informed by social relations, human culture, and history. The possibility that the poem enacts forestalls the much lamented disjunction between humanity and nature (e.g. "The world is too much with us") by undercutting the logic that makes such an artificial separation possible in the first place.

 

Copyright 2001 by Jim Beatty

Jim Beatty: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Many of the critics on MAPS astutely trace the deconstructive force of Stein’s "Patriarchal Poetry," crediting the poem’s form with radically destabilizing binary oppositions. Yet, they seem to take the specific discursive resonances of individual terms as somewhat irrelevant. Quartermain explicitly argues that the poem "covertly if not blatantly invit[es] the reader to skip, since the eye running down a list tends to hurry along, inattentive, expecting more of the same, expecting tedium." He further claims that "The repeated phrase ‘Patriarchal Poetry’ virtually loses all meaning and comes to serve as a functional cypher;" thus the text’s deconstructive project is enacted by denying "patriarchy" any power of meaning. Yearsley agrees, arguing that the poem "places the term ‘patriarchal poetry’ into the multiple suggestive incoherent mode of discourse it is opposed to, where it stands out like a rock, meaning nothing and heard only as a drum beat." This supposed deconstructive draining of meaning is also seen as radically decontextualized. Davidson argues that "Many of the paragraphs create the effect of discourse without any human or social context. If Wordsworth's definition of poetic discourse is a language of men speaking to men, Stein's variation is of systems speaking to systems." And, as Yearsley astutely points out, the sound of "systems speaking to systems" is "often reminiscent of the repeated squeakings and jerkings of a piece of machinery."

While these readings help account for the disturbing, compelling power of this text, I think they somewhat miss the mark. For it seems to me that the poem’s repeatedly insistent identification of what "patriarchal poetry" is describes the monumental and multiple meanings it may have as a repressive agent. Denying "patriarchal" discursive meaning does nothing to resist patriarchal oppression. If "patriarchy" is one name for a discursive system of power that aims for the illusion of totality for the panoptic internalization of its terms, then resistance lies in exposing the illusory nature of that seeming totality and externalizing the terms of oppression, both of which can be done by imagining an other to power. This imagining is what I think the text not so much describes as tries to enact. It is, however, a deconstructive enactment. Far from being de-contextualized and groundless, though, the text speaks from a fundamentally deconstructive place. The trouble in interpreting such a text, however, lies in the fact that this place can only be described metaphorically, not directly. It is the "outside" of discourse that cannot be spoken; we allude to it in an effort to resist repressive discourses. One productive way to approach Stein’s metaphorical gesture towards this impossible outside is by comparing it to other similar projects. I think two such examples are William S. Burroughs’s "cut-up" theory/aesthetic and Martin Heidegger’s proto-deconstructive philosophy.*

Burroughs characterized the discursively constructed "reality" inhabited by the subjects of discourse with the metaphor of a movie set. The way to resist the repressive power of discourse, then, is to move subjectivity off the set. In order to get off the "set" of language, Burroughs proposed that the physical cutting of the text. Based on an accidental dissection of a newspaper by a friend, the artist Brion Gyson, Burroughs began taking pages of both his own prose and the texts of others, cutting them (e.g. into four equal squares), rearranging the sections, and then transcribing the newly juxtaposed words and phrases. While Burroughs sometimes claims that this process is random, his own narrative/editorial control is evident in his "cut-up" short stories and novels. In juxtaposing a story from the New York Times or a text of Kafka’s with his own satirical narratives of resistance to total discursive control, Burroughs uses power’s own terms to deconstruct its repressive construction of subjectivity. In a similar manner, Stein’s re-juxtapositions of both the name and the self-representations of patriarchal power break them free from their usual effects. Without taking patriarchy’s terms off patriarchy’s "set," they would operate according to their usual roles even in Stein’s text. In both Burroughs’s and Stein’s text, the specificity of the discursive power "set" off of which they are trying to move is far from irrelevant, for the "outside" of discourse is only reached by dismantling specific, carefully chosen parts of the "set" and placing them in new, resistant configurations. Burroughs often claimed that he wanted to destroy the form of the novel. In destroying the (usual) form of poetry, Stein opens cracks in the discourse of (patriarchal) power that facilitate resistance; in the same way Burroughs tries to open cracks in the discourse of total governmental surveillance and control.

Another possible comparison for Stein’s metaphorical gesture towards the "outside" of discursive power is Heidegger’s late proto-deconstructive project. Heidegger locates the possibility of subjective meaning outside the determining forms of Western philosophical discourse in the space in-between subject and object. He called this place the "clearing" (as in a forest) where meaning can (re)present itself to the subject. This "clearing" is analogous to Burroughs’s space off the "set" of discourse. While this clearing is neither subjective or objective, both terms are fundamental to its being. This is closely related to the notion that in deconstructing the Cartesian mind/body split, neither term can be ignored (as many deconstructive models often do). Given this scandalously flattened account of Heidegger’s deconstructive impulses, I would say that "Patriarchal Poetry"’s locus of enunciation may be compared to this Heideggerian "clearing." This is why we can recognize the terms but are somewhat at a loss for meaning, for while there is a subjective context, subjectivity is only one aspect. The reader is paradoxically given a foothold of subjective identification in the speaking voice of the poem while at the same time s/he is denied a stable subject position within the text to inhabit by its dislocating move beyond the conventions of subjective speech towards an impossible space of patriarchy’s objective representation. This "clearing" or space "off the set" is both comprised of and radically other than the subjective and objective.

Stein’s text, then, tries to enact a space (like Burroughs’s "off the set" or Heidegger’s "clearing) different from the totalizing potential of patriarchal discourse. One way in which it does this is through the recurrent presence of the number "three," suggesting a third way beyond the logic of "either/or." The frequent juxtapositions of "one" and "two" cumulatively suggest something beyond patriarchy, a discursive clearing in which one need not be subjectified by patriarchal discourse (e.g. 56, 58, etc.). Another way the text uses numbers to suggest something other than patriarchy is in the numbering of patriarchies: "One Patriarchal Poetry / Two Patriarchal Poetry / Three Patriarchal Poetry" (69). Thus patriarchal discourse’s illusory will to totality is exploded, for Stein’s text exposes it as a multiplicity rather than the naturalized, monolithic "way of the world" contained in its self-(mis)representations.

This "other" possibility is also suggested by the verbs which, in the absence of predication, take on an imperative nature. Commands such as "reconsider;" "Compare something else to something else" (57); "Reject rejoice rejuvenate" (59); "Leave it" (60); etc., far from draining the terms of power of all meaning, charge the reader to actively engage and transform the subjective, coercive meanings of patriarchal discourse. Closely related to the text’s use of the imperative is the prevalence of subjunctive voice, e.g. in the repeated "might"s and "as if"s. By speaking in the subjunctive mode of possibility, the text undermines patriarchy’s declarative claims to necessity.

Far from denying the power of patriarchal discourse, then, the text warns that " There is no use at all in reorganizing in reorganizing" (77). One cannot resist patriarchy merely by recapitulating the terms of its power, as a simple inversion or denial would do. Despite Ruddick’s claim that "[a] ‘different’ text is thus a feminist text," Stein’s subversion depends on a recognition not only of the power of difference but also the power of patriarchy’s often stunning mystification of its own duality. The text warns of "Patriarchal poetry recollected" and "Patriarchal poetry relined" (69, 73), taking seriously the power of patriarchy to mutate around resistance, re-inscribing the rebel subject into its discursive policing. The text itself is not purely other than this patriarchal power, for while there is "patriarchal Poetry in Pieces," "patriarchal Poetry has that [reunion] return" (74). Part of the urgent breathlessness of the texts mechanized repetition is the anxiety over its own level of contamination in a discursive system that it can never wholly be outside. Subjects can approach the Heideggerian clearing, but will never reach it. "Patriarchal Poetry" both speaks from and tries to enact a space within that approach.

Jim Beatty: On "A Colossal American Copulation"

I’d like to respond to John Marsh’s comments on “A Colossal American Copulation”. While I admire and would echo most of what John says about the poem, one point merits more discussion. In the course of his analysis, Marsh parenthetically remarks: “Perhaps it's too generous to explain away those critiques we might have more trouble cheering on (its possible backhanded racism-"Fuck every gangbanger in America"-and misogyny ("Fuck...That first pussy I ever touched.") by arguing that even the speaker has been corrupted by that which he so doggedly critiques.”

While I agree that simply celebrating Louis’s irreverent rejection of the US dominant culture would too easily elide some disturbing moments in the poem, I think that the comments Marsh quotes need to be more broadly contextualized. With respect to Louis’s derision of “gangbangers,” it should be remembered that those who we would identify–and who would identify themselves–under this moniker fall under nearly every conceivable racial category. Additionally, Louis follows up this statement by saying “Fuck furiously the drive-by shooters.” Here he is not just objecting to an oversimplified vision of a cultural identity–he is lamenting an all-too-real material practice of those who would call themselves by the name he attacks. Thus in saying “Fuck every gangbanger in America,” Louis is rejecting a commodified posture of rebellion that markets intra- and inter-racial violence to urban refugees of every color–be it African Americans or Latina/os in major urban centers or white kids in Oklahoma or even American Indians on the reservation. Rather than a racist dismissal of an ethnic counter-culture, Louis’s comment may well be a critique of how the commodified version of that counter-culture is deployed to mis-direct the legitimate rage of the oppressedclasses of all races in the US.

Another aspect of a broader context in which to consider some of the poem's more disturbing lines lies in Louis’s self-representation of his poetic project: “Well, the overall theme in my work is personal survival. I'm writing about my life. I guess deep down I sort of fancy myself as speaking for certain kinds of people who don't have a voicefor the downtrodden.” In enunciating the terms of “personal survival,” Louis is trying to come to terms with a postmodern barrage of (largely media-generated) images and phenomenon. Additionally, Ullman comments that Louis speaks as both an observer and a prime example of a condition, as both the accuser and the accused.” In this light, I read his rejection of “That first pussy I ever touched” as regret rather than hatred. I’ll agree that this regret is somewhat trivialized in being paralleled to a regret for “That first cigarette I ever smoked,” yet both do point to specific,often thoughtless adolescent actions that can have long-lasting physical, psychological, and symbolic effects–effects that Louis needs to symbolically reject along with everything else. Finally, Louis follows these two lines with the comic “Fuck it again, Sam,” moving past a simplistic nostalgia embodied in the line he re-writes from _Casablanca_, denying a longing for that first cigarette or first sexual experience–that one that all subsequent experiences in either respect will never equal–as well as a destructive infinite regret.

Finally, Louis undercuts the moral force of any item in his long list of “fuck you”s. He does this with obviously playful lines like “Fuck a duck,” a curse I’ve never heard spoken in anything but a lighthearted, albeit resigned, tone. Additionally, Louis startles the reader by including “Mother Teresa” in his list of “fuck you”s. He follows this up with an immediate response to his readers’ reactions by saying “Jesus, just kidding.” I find this to be the most disturbing line in the poem. Yet Louis insists that, at the very least, there is a line between what he is seriously rejecting and what he implicitly values. This line alone undercuts a critique that the poem is simply a reactionary rejection of everything with nothing positive to offer. While the playful and the scathing often overlap in the poem (e.g. the hilarious “Fuck . . . Sam Donaldson’s wig”), Louis deftly deflects, for the careful, sympathetic reader (i.e. one that won’t stop reading at the first “Fuck”) any sort of moral outrage the poem might occasion. In the nihilistic glee of his flipping off the US, we have critique, lament, and paradoxically celebration complexly inter-woven.

Jim Beatty: On "The Bitter River"

Langston Hughes’s "The Bitter River" is a complex analysis of how racial and class oppression operate in an articulated fashion, which suggests that the "two" facets of identity cannot be as easily separated as current critical treatments of them too often do. The poem offers not only an astute account of dominant oppression in the US, it teaches lessons that contemporary critical theory would do well to heed.

First, there seems to be a subtle, dual thrust to the recurrent reference to the speaker’s "dream." Hughes goes beyond the dream of equal treatment and civil rights ominously referred to in "Harlem" (i.e. the explosive nature of "a dream deferred") to give the "dream" specific, divergent content in "The Bitter River." The first mention of the "dream", strangled by the lyncher’s noose in line 16, is followed by a description of it as education and vocational training. This seems to be the dream of accommodation and "separate but equal" famously endorsed by Booker T. Washington among others. Hughes undercuts to validity of this dream by placing the same ideals in the white platitudes offered in lines 38-47. In line with Du Bois’ critique of Washington, then, Hughes dismisses this dream as a fantasy. Yet he intensifies his obliteration of the "dream" of vocational training as a means to better fit in the place relegated to African Americans in a racist system by showing that even a phantasmatic dream of racial progress is violently denied.

In the next reference to the speaker’s dream in line 61, however, the context signals a shift in content. This "dream" is not even serious enough for the racists to kill–they merely mock it. This "dream" is mentioned right after the speaker affirms that the lynched Charlie Lang and Ernest Green are his "comrades," and the horrific insult of their murder is heaped upon the exploitation of the speaker’s "labor." This "dream," then, at least evokes a communist struggle for class solidarity in the capitalist-racist system. Rather than Washington’s "dream" of the proper training for menial/wage-slave jobs fully endorsed yet murdered by the racist dominant class, this new dream is of salvation not through occupational subservience but rather through labor equality. It is interesting that the dubious dream offered by the white speakers must be killed but the more valid dream of labor solidarity and equality is merely "spit" upon. This seems to suggest that the latter, more valid dream is less of a threat to the capitalist-racist elite than even Washington’s subservient fantasy.

Hughes intensifies this connection between the violent suppression of black aspiration and the aloof contempt for a class-conscious racial struggle in lines 74-75: "Tired now of the bitter river, / Tired now of the pat on the back." The parallel structure here equates the rage about the lynchings the speaker imbibes from the Southern river with an equal rage concerning the paternalistic dismissal of a class-based revolutionary consciousness. While the literal lynching of African Americans is obviously a more immediately pressing problem, Hughes suggests that the symbolic lynching of class-based African-American struggles for equality may be just as damaging to the race in the end. The lyncher can be clearly identified and materially resisted. The wage-enslaving capitalist, who can enact on a large scale what the lyncher can only do one Black man at a time, however, is a much more elusive target for resistance.

It is also impressive that Hughes maintains this connection between physical, violent, and murderous oppression and a more subtle, class-based oppression through starvation 25 years later in "The Backlash Blues." In lines 5-6 the speaker again articulates economic and bodily oppression by mentioning "taxes," "wages," and "Vietnam" in the same breath. This poem too gestures towards a wider solidarity. Here, however, the speaker shows a more confident certainty in the eventual success of this class-based resistance, for he affirms a global solidarity. The "backlash" and the slaver’s whip symbolically enacted through economic oppression shifts by the end of the poem to a more literal "backlash" against the capitalist-racist elite once the more numerous "non-whites" of the world rise up and wrest control away from the real "minority" in global terms: the white, racist capitalists. Instead the tension between racial and class politics that Shulman seems to read in the various versions of "Justice," both "The Bitter River" and "The Backlash Blues" show Hughes’s remarkable ability to treat race and class in an articulated manner throughout his career.

Jim Beatty ©2001

Jim Beatty: The Economics of Race Relations in John Beecher’s "Beaufort Tides"

John Beecher’s "Beaufort Tides," takes an astute critical perspective on the history of race relations in the US, especially in the South. The first stanza of the poem sets up a decaying picture of the South. The poem evokes an end to economic prosperity in the same breath that it alludes to the end of slavery. Since the result of "No slavers" conducting commerce is "Rotting hulls / are drawn up on the shore," slavery as a system of racial oppression is articulated to a notion of slavery as the very foundation of the US’s economic power. The industrial revolution was truly built on the backs of African slaves. When that foundation of capitalism is taken away from the South, the overt supporters of the system suffer, setting up a stark contrast to the ostensible opponents of slavery, who continued to enjoy the benefits of a capitalist economy born from the enslavement of Africans and people of African descent. In 1934, this scene of economic decay could apply to the entire country–the sins of the South finally coming home to the equally guilty North.

The second stanza begins what is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the poem, i.e. the articulation of "free, white" subjectivities with that of "enslaved, black." In a number of contemporary critical registers, important theorizings of subjectivity have noted how oppressive economic systems of domination produce not only the subjectivities of the dominated but also that of the dominators. For in example, in postcolonial studies many have noted that both colonial discourse and the material enactments of colonial policies have produced both the colonizer’s and the colonized’s subjectivity. One of the most famous examples of this argument in an overly exclusively discursive register can be found in the work of Homi Bhabha. Similar arguments have long been made concerning the predication of "whiteness" in the US based upon all the attributes of "blackness" that it is not, a process that could be called "negative identification." Studies by Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark), Eric Lott (Love and Theft), and even Leslie Fiedler (Love and Death in the American Novel) have demonstrated this phenomenon in US literature and popular culture. And even before these important critical elucidations, arguments that slavery produced–and degraded–both enslaver and enslaved subjectivities have been widespread, especially in the African-American tradition. Such arguments can be found in sources as diverse as the writings of Booker T. Washington, his nemesis WEB Du Bois, as well as numerous 18th and 19th century anti-slavery activists such as Douglass, Walker, and the infamous "Confessions" of Nat Turner.

What is remarkable in "Beaufort Tides" is that an Anglo poet in the 1930s could construct a model of mutually constitutive subjectivities for the South and, by extension, the nation as a whole. The poem describes how the settling of the so-called "New World" was carried out not only by European invaders but also by the African slaves who did all the work: "chained each to each by destiny." Since the Europeans are "chained" just as the Africans are, their subjectivities are just as degraded by the system as those who horrendously suffer its material effects.

In the third stanza, this connection is further solidified, for the Anglos and the Africans are tied not only by the place ("tides") but also by a common history ("time") and even biology ("blood"). This common "blood" evokes the common humanity of slaver and enslaved. It also alludes to the widespread inter-racial sexual affairs in the South, all too often forced upon female slaves by white masters. This only intensifies the "master’s" "fear," for the emancipation his slaves defiantly celebrate is also a defiance by the children he has rejected. (Langston Hughes’s "Mulatto" comes to mind here). New conflicts arise within these fundamentally mutually dependent groups when the formal means of one’s domination over the other have been over-turned.

The final stanza abruptly brings us of out of the past and into the narrative present, where both the oppressor and the oppressed now share a common "fear," for the economic collapse brought about by removing the foundation of industrial capital has come home in the Great Depression to threaten both groups. Not only do African Americans continue to suffer under a legacy of slavery and oppression–their former enslavers and current oppressors are also "captives of their [common] history." Since the very subjectivities of both the enslavers and the enslaved have been produced by the evils of slavery, their degraded selves are not equipped to deal with an industrial capitalist machine that is grinding to a halt without the blood that fuels it. Ironically, the "future tide" that will save them was not the founding of a new social-economic order but rather a new infusion of blood into the machine from WWII. In 1934, however, the poem can end with a plaintively hopeful note that both the white enslavers and the black enslaved can be "free"of a mutually degrading history by forging a new common identity that is not based on a hierarchy of power and oppression. "Beaufort Tides" gives a remarkably complex, compact elucidation of the material/economic bases of US race relations.

Jim Beatty © 2001